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What enables people to survive great hardship?

Building with bullet holesI was recently re-reading Mary Pipher’s excellent book from a decade ago _The Middle of Everywhere: Helping Refugees Enter the American Community_. The book is in large part stories of refugees and a guide to helping them navigate their new world – encouraging members of the community to act as “cultural brokers” and guides to the newest and most vulnerable Americans. It is also, however, a story about Pipher’s own reconsideration of traditional psychology when confronted with people to whom the worst and deepest traumas and tragedies have happened. She comes to see the American theraputic model as lacking, and offers some fascinating insights into what the most traumatized people in our communities might really need – and what they already have to offer.

As I was re-reading it, I also noted her list of the attributes for successful endurance and adaptation to a new culture – a list that seems both applicable to those (some of us) who might have to leave their native place and become refugees literally or metaphorically (whether we leave our country or our neighborhood, climate change is likely to drive many of us from our current homes.) It also applies to those of us who may find ourselves living in place – but in a world that is radically different and new to us, and at times frightening.

The people Pipher has learned this from have lost more than most of us think we might be able to bear. They have seen their families murdered in front of their eyes, watched children swept away by rivers or dying of starvation in their arms. They have been raped and beaten, been caged and tortured – and often all of the above for years. They have lost home, family, possessions, culture, familiarity- and gone on. Pipher is astonished by how HAPPY many of these people go on to be, and notes that psychological literature from deeply traumatized groups like Holocaust survivors find that survivors require psychological help at lower levels than comparably aged peers, often have more satisfying marriages and are better at finding happiness and contentment than most. That does not mean that trauma does no harm – but as Pipher points out,

In all places and times, people have needed to know how to heal. Ten thousand years ago, a woman whose husband was killed in a hunt for wild game must have wondered ‘How can I go on?’ Parents who buried their children must have asked themselves, ‘Will we ever feel happy again?’ Perhaps the oldest and most universal question is ‘How do I get over this?’

The people Pipher deals with have already answered that question, however imperfectly, and most of us could learn a great deal from them. We all hope not to lose so much in the coming changes. We wish fervently not to endure the kind of trauma that people have endured and do endure around us – and there’s no shame in that. Still all of us will endure trauma – perhaps vast, perhaps ordinary trauma – illness, the loss of someone we love. Knowing how to go on, however, how to endure and move forward, is ultimately a skill each of us need. So here are the Attributes of Resilience Pipher sees in the most successful refugees – and they are attributes that all of us can work on cultivating.

1. Future Orientation – the ability to look forward even while acknowledging and learning to live with the past.

2. Energy and Good Health – This is hard to cultivate, but all of us can think of ways we can improve our physical health and have the strength to face up to new days and difficult challenges physically and mentally.

3. The Ability to Pay Attention – Responding to change rapidly, watching for signs that things need to change, recognition of nuance. Simply being able to tell when you need to change your strategies and responding rapidly.

4. Ambition and Initiative – Working hard, seeking as many opportunities to make change as you can, as many ways to improve your circumstances as you can.

5. Verbal Expressiveness – Being able to ask for what you need, process your situation and articulate what the real problems are. The ability to turn your traumatic past into a story in which you are the (imperfect, probably) hero.

6. A Talent for Happiness – The ability to find ways to be happy even in hardship, the ability to draw pleasure from nature, family, small things.

7. The Ability to Calm Yourself – The capacity to endure pain without running from it into drinking, drugs or rage or other escapes. The ability to deal with what is here and now, without obsessing about what may be.

8. Flexibility and the ability to move between situations. Can you change when the situation calls for it?

9. The ability to make thoughtful choices – The ability to be intentional about what you take into your new life, to reject things that are harmful.

10. Lovability – People who are loving and lovable are more likely to get help from others. Kindness, generosity, but also enthusiasm and passion and the ability to have fun.

11. The Ability to Love New People – Caring for others gives life meaning, and when some people you love are lost, you still need to find others to love and to help.

12. Good values and moral character – In the hardest situations, integrity, honesty, a sense of justice and honor are MOST needed. Pipher documents how often refugees encounter people who in the greatest exigency still act kindly, honorably and with generosity, proving that humans have the capacity to show their best selves even in the hardest times.

Pipher notes that she thought that being lovable would be the most necessary attribute, but was incorrect – ultimately the ability to love others, to turn to selfless care of others is the single most important thing any of us can have as a kind of resilience. She sees this as also the best response to trauma – the raise in self-confidence and comfort when you can help another.

I know that reading her book makes me ask myself “Well, how would *I* handle those traumas?” There are some attributes of resilience I have, and others that I lack and need to work on. The beauty of this is that like other forms of preparedness, working on your own resilience brings benefits whether the world ends or whether it does not. All of us can stand to be more flexible, more generous, to look to the future, to love someone new. It might save our lives, or it might just add to the meaning of the lives we live now.

For me, flexibility and the ability to calm myself and not lose my temper are probably the two I most need to work on. What about you?


Image credit: War zone - BigTallGuy/flickr

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